On Being a Writer in the Age of AI

AI generated image of an author sitting in front of a computer writing. Can you count the flaws in this image? And who the hell puts a glass of what I assume is whiskey behind the monitor?

People—by which I mean, the great teeming mass of human beings who make their livings by any means other than writing—are deeply weird about writers.

I make my living as a novelist. It’s not a particularly good living—I make less than an average fast-food worker in Oregon—but it’s a living. Like everyone who makes a living crafting words of whimsey, I have, on more than a few occasions, encountered folks with Great Ideas.

These encounters follow a predictable path, like water flowing down a riverbed. “Oh, you’re a writer?” says the person who’s just discovered that I’m a writer. “I have a great idea for a story! Why don’t you write it for me, and we’ll split the profits?”

There’s a strange, topsy-turvy logic in this proposal, a weird notion of how writing works that’s a bit like one of those maddening M. C. Escher paintings where the more you examine it, the less sense it makes.

On the one hand, the people with the Great Ideas seem to understand they lack the ability to turn the idea into a book, else they wouldn’t be making this (in their estimation, rather generous) offer. On the other, they trivialize the act of writing; it’s the idea that’s hard, see. The writing of it is a mere formality.

Inevitably, attempts to explain that ideas are really rather common and ordinary, and the difficulty lies in the turning of an idea into a book, fall on deaf ears. I have about half a dozen ideas for novels a day, no exaggeration. Ideas are everywhere. You can’t walk down the street without encountering ideas.

And I really mean it when I say ideas are everywhere. Eunice and I are just putting the finishing touches on a novel called London Under Veil, a contemporary urban fantasy that’s sort of Harry Potter meets The Matrix by way of Tom Clancy, but with sex.

That PHP is taken from a live, in-the-wild bit of WordPress malware.

Where did we get the idea to write a novel about a young British-born-Chinese infosec worker at a London webhosting company who gets sucked into a centuries-long underground war between a group of spellcasting sex workers and a society of rage mages that has infiltrated and captured the Tories?

From a social media question.

That. That sparked a conversation betwixt Eunice and me that led to a book.

Ideas are everywhere.

The folks with the Grand Ideas generally seem to believe that 75% of a book is coming up with the idea, and 25% is the writing (or, if they’re especially generous, that the idea is 50% and the writing is 50%). In reality, it’s more like the idea is 0.25%, and the writing is 99.75%, though if you’ve never written a book that might not seem credible.

I’ve talked before about the process of writing a book, and man, there’s nothing like the Writer’s Roller Coaster…largely because if there were, it would contravene the Geneva Convention.

So let’s talk about AI.

The advent of ChatGPT has led to a ton of folks who think that since the idea is the hardest part of writing a novel, and the writing is the trivial bit—a mere incidental—that in a world of ChatGPT, anyone can publish a novel. It’s so easy! Type your idea into ChatGPT and Bob’s your uncle! Fame and riches await!

Of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a peculiar thing that happens with human beings where, when you lack the ability to do something, you also lack the ability to evaluate whether or not someone else who does that thing is good at the task. People who aren’t writers may sincerely be unable to tell that ChatGPT output is bland, dreary, inconsistent garbage—not really information so much as an information-shaped space, a suggestion of what information might vaguely look like.

I’ve been asked if I’m afraid ChatGPT will make me obsolete.

No. The answer is no.

Folks who think that ChatGPT can turn their amazing idea into a best-selling book…well, let’s just say I see disappointment in their future.

Will AI get better? Sure. Will AI ever replace technical writers? Mmmmmaybe, though I think it’s more likely it will enhance technical writers by creating a tool in their toolkit for certain formulaic parts of technical writing. A good technical writer needs to be able to imagine herself in the position of someone unskilled in the art being guided through an unfamiliar task, and I don’t see AI doing that untill it actually becomes, well, real artificial intelligence, which ChatGPT and its like most definitely are not.

Will AI replace creative fiction writers? I think that’s an AI-Complete problem—a problem unlikely to be solved until we have true self-aware general AI, at which point AI people are people, and like human people, may r may not be good at writing.

But I digress.

The point I’m making here is the fascination with ChatGPT producing a novel comes, I think, from a profound ignorance of how common ideas are and how difficult it is to turn an idea into something someone else wants to read.

I’m writing this from the home of one of my co-authors in Springfield. Tomorrow, we are driving out to rural Missouri to trace the path of the protagonist in our upcoming far-future, post-Collapse literary novel, Spin, because we need to get a sense of what it’s like to make that journey…and that’s exactly the sort of thing ChatGPT cannot bring to the table.

To terse or not to terse

I woke this morning thinking about work emails.

I emailed my lawyer and my therapist this morning.

When I write a work-related email to a client or a vendor or some professional I’m contracting for services, I tend to take a lesson from my experiences when I owned a computer consulting firm back in Tampa. Back then, I strongly, strongly preferred clients who sent me terse emails that got straight to the point in the first two sentences to meandering emails that took three paragraphs to get to the point, because the time I spent reading an email was time I wasn’t making money.

So for example, I really appreciated a client who sent me an email saying something like “We’re adding three new workstations to our network, but the network switch is out of ports, so we’d like you to come in and see about installing a larger switch and maybe get costs to upgrade to a faster network.” One sentence, spells out exactly what they need, boom, done.

I worked for a time as a print liaison for a small company that developed training manuals for businesses; they hired me to act as the go-between with printers and shipping companies, primarily, because at the time I already had a working relationship with most of the printers in the area.

I cc’d the business owner on all my emails with print shops and shipping companies. I remember a phone conversation with her one day where she complained about the brevity of my emails—she believed, strongly, that the emails should be longer, with introductory paragraphs like we really appreciate the work you did for us on the last print job and we’re looking forward to working with you again.” Where I would send a print shop an RFQ that might be two, maybe three paragraphs long, she preferred emails that were eight or ten.

I did it hr way, of course, because she was the client, but since I happened to be thinking about it, I’m curious. For those of you who communicate by email for professional or work-related reasons, what are your preferences?

Newtonian and Relativistic Morality

So let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is famous for basically three things: creating an entire cottage industry of weird foaming-at-the-mouth Evangelical cries of satanic doom that will sweep over the land, covering it in darkness forever and ever; giving socially awkward high school students of a certain era something to do and a way to make friends; and, of course, the D&D alignment system, which divided all of morality into a tidy grid with nine different possibilities.

What Evangelicals think D&D looks like

What D&D actually looks like, but with more dice and books (image: No Revisions)

The Dungeons & Dragons alignment system divided morality into Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic on one axis, and Good, Neutral, and Evil along the other. It’s become a cultural touchstone (or a cliché, if you’re less charitable) that has spawned a zillion parodies:

But here’s the thing:

The problem with D&D morality is that it assumes there’s some fixed definition of “good” and “evil.”

You know how relativity tells us all motion is relative? If two people go whizzing past each other in space, each one is at rest in his own reference frame and sees the other one moving.

Real morality is kind of like that. Most people truly, honestly believe they are good. That’s their local inertial frame. For example: Most people agree that violence in defense of your life or the life of another is morally good. The guy who plants a pipe bomb in an abortion clinic? That’s what he thinks he’s doing: defending the lives of babies being murdered. In his eyes, blowing the limbs off clinic workers is morally good.

That’s his inertial reference frame. He would consider himself neutral good; D&D would call him neutral evil, or possibly chaotic evil.

D&D morality, like Newton, assumes the existence of a fixed reference frame from which to evaluate all morality.

In real morality, various people have defined various reference frames. Some folks use “society” as a reference frame, which is all well and good until you encounter cases like “if a society says slavery is moral, then for that society, slavery is moral.”

Utilitarianism is kind of the equivalent of using the cosmic microwave background radiation as your reference frame. If you see a dipole in the CMB, you’re moving, and more specifically, your vector of motion is oriented toward the blueshift in the CMB.

It’s not a perfect analogy; motion is a single vector and D&D has two axes (good <-> evil and lawful <-> chaotic). But it gets the point across.

If we set the CMB to our D&D framework, then probably, yes. Most people are probably neutral, though they think of themselves as good. That’s the entire difficulty: almost all people think of themselves as good. The activist campaigning to legalize gay marriage and the fire-n-brimstone Fundamentalist preacher shaking his fist at the gays both believe they are good.

In Newtonian ethics, this clearly cannot be.

There’s also the issue that for most of us in our day to day lives, using the CMB as a reference frame just isn’t very useful. Right now, as I type this, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room. The couch, the chair next to me, the fish tank to my left, and my tea to my right all seem at rest. The fact that we’re on the surface of a planet spinning and whipping around the sun which is making its slow orbit about the center of mass of the Milky Way which is itself on a collision course with Andromeda at ludicrous speed isn’t relevant to me.

I’m not going to get out of a speeding ticket by saying “but officer, motion is relative, and if you measure our speeds by the CMB dipole they’re indistinguishable!”

Human beings are hard-wired to think differently about our in-group and our out-group. This is built into the structure of our brains. We also have a limit on how big that in-group can be. It’s about 150 people. This is called Dunbar’s number, and it sets a limit on the number of meaningful emotional connections we can make.

The in-group—the people in our Dunbar sphere—-is the ethical equivalent of my living room. When I get up to make more tea, the only inertial frame that’s relevant to me is the frame in which my living room is at rest. Trying to use the CMB as my reference frame isn’t useful.

Most people’s day to day inertial reference frame for their moral evaluations is their Dunbar sphere—the people in their immediate social group. That’s their inertial living room. In that living room, they can think of themselves as “good” even if their ethical actions with respect to utilitarianism is extraordinarily evil—that is, the CMB dipole is very large.

The people who built this place believed, from within their reference frame, they were good. (Image: Frederick Wallace)

Because they don’t think about any reference frame outside their Dunbar sphere, they do things that appear to be morally contradictory—like taking in a friend who has lost his job and his home, while at the same time saying “fuck those Syrian refugees. I don’t care if an 8-year-old girl dies in agony. Fuck her.”

They think of themselves as “lawful good” because they took in their homeless friend. They continue to think of themselves as “lawful good” when they casually condemn thousands of women and children to gruesome deaths. The walls of my living room are relevant to me; the cosmic microwave background of utilitarianism is not.

I would argue that in D&D terms, it’s quite possible that the majority of people are, if anything, neutral evil, if we use utilitarianism as our CMB. Most people believe slavery is evil. Most people would not support slavery making a comeback. Most people are totally 100% okay with buying a diamond engagement ring mined by slave labor, as long as the slavery happens somewhere out of sight to people outside their Dunbar sphere.

I suggest that in most cases, seen from the reference frame of utilitarianism, the majority of human beings, including those who see themselves as lawful good, are in fact neutral evil.

Truth as a Philosophical Strange Attractor

[This essay is an expansion of a thought I originally wrote as an answer on Quora]

There is a notion, a myth enshrined in a great deal of Western philosophy, that as time goes on, societies move ever further from superstition and ignorance, and ever closer to Truth.

It is, like many social myths, complete nonsense.

In fact, societies swing to and fro, sometimes moving closer to the truth, sometimes further away.

The way I model this in my head is that truth is a strange attractor, and societies loop and whirl around it in complex ways that are extremely hard to predict and vary depending on how the society formed.

Pretty much exactly like this:

These are strange attractors—mathematical functions that loop and swirl around a point, sometimes moving closer, sometimes farther away, twisting and curling as though drawn to it without ever entirely reaching it. They never repeat, they never settle down into a stable orbit.

This is, I think what human societies do. Every society has its collection of myths and legends, things it wants to believe about itself whatever the reality might be, and its own unique monomyth. These things influence the trajectory a society takes through social space, tugging it this way and that, whatever empirical fact or philosophical truth might be.

This means you could, for example, take snapshots of a society’s history, like paragraphs out of the society’s history books, and treat the pile of snapshots like a Poincaré map of that society’s eccentric orbit around the truth. And what you’d find would be something like a Philosophical Strange Attractor, a chaotic churning orbit about the truth, full of twists and turns, always tugged in the direction of truth but never settling there.

People like to talk about history as a swinging pendulum, but I don’t think that’s a good model. A pendulum retraces the same arc over and over. Societies may progress or regress, may seek to explore new ideas or retreat into history and tradition, but they never really repeat the same path twice. Even when those who long for some imagined idyllic past gain power, they never really quite reach it. Societies, like people, never set foot in the same river twice.

Image: Rodrigo Curi

Every society has its mythologies. Mythologies are necessary for social identity, they’re always going to be there. Mythologies weld disparate people into something like a more or less cohesive whole, forming an overarching sense of identity that (ideally) takes the place of family or tribal identity. Without that overarching identity, you don’t have Rome, you have a bunch of squabbling families and tribes who don’t much like each other. (Even with a foundational mythology, you still have that, of course, but the overarching mythology helps create glue that aggregates all those disparate elements.)

A foundational myth creates identity—the way people see themselves. And identity distorts and shapes the way we see the world.

But the thing about that myth is it is, in any objective, empirical sense, not true. And subtle variations in a society’s founding myth, like subtle differences in the start condition of a chaotic system, have huge effects on that society’s chaotic path around the attractor of Truth.

So no. No, the moral arc of society doesn’t always bend int he direction of truth, or justice, or any of those other wonderful philosophical ideas. It may follow a chaotic orbit around these things, but it is not inevitable that if you wait long enough a society will necessarily arrive at Truth, or Justice, or Enlightenment. If you want to get there, it’s your job, and will always be your job, to work to make it happen.

Why We Judge: Laziness, Tribalism, and…fanfic?

Thinking is difficult, therefore let the herd pronounce judgment!
—Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition – Volume 10

Recently, a user on Quora asked a question about why people are so prone to judging others, even those they don’t know.

And the truth is, there isn’t one reason. There are lots of them, including Carl Jung’s…and one that I’ve been chewing on lately but I’ve never seen anyone talk about before.

This question has been on my mind quite a bit over the last five years. It’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, people will dogpile complete strangers, even when they know nothing about them except what other people say. And it happens fast. Like overnight.

Image by Andrii Yalanskyi

When people outside your tribe do it, it’s called “cancel culture.” When people who are part of your tribe do it, they like to imagine that it’s “accountability,” though to whom and for what isn’t always perhaps quite as clear as the folks who call it that think it is.

That’s a big part of what it is—tribalism.

There’s also an element of virtue-signaling to it. Part of the way people police the border between in-group and out-group, Us and Them, is virtue signaling. Liberals accuse conservatives of virtue-signaling and conservatives accuse liberals of virtue-signaling, but in reality it’s a human trait, a way of loudly proclaiming that you’re part of the group, you beling, you’re one of the in-group, see? Look at how you champion the values of the group!

Groups, especially small subcultures, also turn viciously on their own for alleged or perceived wrongdoing because it’s a social safety valve. When you’re a member of an oppressed or persecuted minority, it’s normal to be angry, but you don’t dare express that anger against the larger, more powerful group that oppresses you, so instead you direct that anger inward, against your own, because it’s safer. That’s why small resistance groups tend to fragment, as was parodied so brilliantly in Life of Brian: because the only safe place to direct your rage is against your own community.

We’re the People’s Front of Judea, not the Judean People’s Front!

It’s kind of like an ablative heat shield that protects a spacecraft by burning up; each fragment that burns away carries heat with it, protecting the space capsule from that heat. By burning away its own members, turning on them with incredible viciousness, the community finds a way to dissipate its anger without calling down the wrath of the larger, more powerful group oppressing it.

And all those things are part of it. There’s no one reason people judge others.

But lately, as I’ve been trying to understand what motivates people to do this, I think there’s another reason that doesn’t get discussed, but that’s at least as important as tribalism and virtue-signaling and in-group/out-group gatekeeping and self-directed rage:

It’s fanfic.

It’s storytelling using real people as characters.

We are a storytelling species. We understand the world through narrative. You see this all the time in politics. Information by itself almost never changes attitudes, because we accept information that fits our narrative and reject information that doesn’t.

It’s always been that way. We always explain the world through stories. Religion is basically, at its core, made-up stories that explain the world, of course. Foundational myths are stories that tell people who they are and where they come from.

Image: Market Photo Design

But it goes a lot deeper than that. If you say the words “abusive relationship,” the overwhelming majority of people will picture a heterosexual relationship in which a man abuses a woman, because that’s the prevailing narrative of what ‘abuse’ looks like. And so everything you’re told about a specific abusive relationship will tend to get filtered through that narrative.

Okay, so.

We understand the world through narrative in a metaphorical sense, but we also understand the world through narrative in a much more literal sense. People make up stories constantly and then fit other people into the roles in those stories, as if they were real-life characters.

See, here’s the thing: To the vast majority of the world’s eight billion people, you are not real. You’re a vague blur, a background character. An NPC. You don’t exist except perhaps as a set of impressions.

We are limited in the number of real connections we can form. This limit is called Dunbar’s number, and it’s generally assumed to be about 150 people or so—in other words, about the maximum size of a tribe of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Those are the numbers of direct personal connections you can hold in your head—friends, enemies, family, everyone. Above that number, people blur and fade into the background. They become less real.

People who aren’t real, are easy fodder for simple morality stories. These stories are abstractions, we make up in order to understand the world we live in and to signal our moral values to others. There’s no room for nuance or complexity. We cast NPCs in the roles of hero or villain or victim or tyrant or whatever, because those people aren’t fully fleshed-out human beings, they’re characters. The stories we write are basically “reality fanfic.”

The thing that’s appealing about fanfic is you can do whatever you want with it.

Image: Maria Menshikova

Think about all the people who make Elon Musk out to be a cartoon hero or a mustache-twirling supervillain. The thing about the weird veneration of Elon Musk is that a lot of the things his legions of drooling fanbois say about him are kinda true. The thing about the weird demonization of Elon Musk is that a lot of what his many haters say about him is also kinda true.

But fanfic doesn’t leave a lot of room for complexity. Most people aren’t very good storytellers, so the stories they tell about the real-life NPCs around them aren’t very nuanced.

The Fall from Grace is arguably the human story, the narrative that is so deeply embedded it reaches all the way back to tales of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The story of Faust, the story of Anakin Skywalker…it’s no coincidence that real-world fanfic tends to echo these themes. We love demonizing people we used to hold up as heroes. We get off on it. Very little feels better than tearing down today the person we venerated yesterday.

Image: Osman Goni

And it makes us feel good about ourselves. When you write fanfic about real-life people. You can slot people into your narratives and then pat yourself on the back about how good you are, how much you care, how moral you are, because when you share those stories, you’re showing your tribe how much you value your tribe’s values. This real-life fanfic feeds into virtue signaling and tribalism and all those other things.

Plus thee’s an element of self-empowerment. We long for connection, especially to people we look up to. Part of tearing down the people we look up to is, I think an expression of that desire for connection.

When we judge people we don’t know, often we hope to make them do something. Go through some process, resign from some position…we want a response from them. This can be part of a redemption narrative, of course—the fallen hero who is redeemed by some act is also a narrative as old as time—but more directly, more immediately, we judge others when we want them to acknowledge us, to interact with us, to do as we say.

That’s incredibly empowering. It validates us. It tells us that we can have an effect on that remote, inaccessible person we don’t know, and of course we can have an effect on the world. We’re powerful. It validates our virtues and our values. It makes us feel strong.

All of this, every bit of it, is easier to do with people we don’t know than with people we do. When we actually know someone, we see the nuance, we’re confronted with complexity. But with someone we don’t know, someone who’s a vague abstract blur? It’s easier to ignore the humanity. It’s easier to make them a character in our fanfic of life. It’s easier to see them as an archetype, a cartoon.

Of course we judge people we don’t know! Judging people we don’t know validates us, signals our virtue, lets us scrawl our own design on reality. Who can resist that temptation?

There will be a last day

When I arrived in Florida a few weeks ago to help care for my mom, who was in the last stages of terminal cancer, Facebook showed me an ad for a pin. I ordered it on the spot. It arrived yesterday, on what would have been my mom’s birthday.

For anyone who doesn’t recognize it, it’s from a poem called Do not go gentle into that good night, by Dylan Thomas, whose first stanza reads:

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I’ve talked a lot about my mom’s wisdom. It was a quiet, understated thing; she had a knack for comprehending the world in ways subtle and deep. When I was growing up, she used to tell me, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.” She understood that we are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures, prone to making decisions for emotional or tribal reasons and then pressing our rational selves into service to justify our choices.

Other things she told me countless times:

“Education is not the solution if ignorance is not the problem.”

“We are predisposed to believe what we wish were true or what we’re afraid is true.”

“Never ask a question whose answer you don’t want to know.”

Even more than her sometimes pointed wisdom, though, I remember she was always, always there for me, without fail. If there was one thing I could count on absolutely, without question, as surely as the rising sun at the end of night, it was that she’d be there without fail. I never for even a millisecond, at any time in my life, doubted her love. Not once.

My mom and my dad on a date, six years before I was born.

I remember one night many years ago, when I was 18 or 19, driving to Ft. Lauderdale in my notoriously unreliable ’69 VW Beetle to visit friends. The car broke down at about 2AM four hours from home, so I called my mom from a pay phone. Without the slightest hesitation, without lectures or rancor, she got up, dragged her ass the four hours to come rescue me, then the next day took me to a repair shop for the part I needed to fix it and drove me right back down again.

She was always that way. That sort of cast-iron knowledge that someone always has your back is probably the single greatest gift you can ever give someone growing up.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in November 2022, thirteen months almost to the day as I type this. She tolerated chemo poorly, though she was not one to go gentle into that good night, and stuck with it no matter how miserable it made her.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

I came down to Florida a few weeks ago to help my dad care for her. At the end, she needed round-the-clock care, so my dad and I alternated in twelve-hour shifts.

In the tiny hours of the night last week, she started having difficulty breathing. I called 911. She’d been in and out of the hospital several times, so I didn’t know this would be the last time she’d ever be home.

The hospital confirmed the cancer had spread to her lungs and brain. A few days later, the doctors took her off life support.

She died at 9:36 in the morning on December 15, 2023, four days before her birthday. We (my dad, my sister, and I) were in the car on the way to the hospital to see her when she passed.

That night, when I called 911, I don’t think any of us knew it was the end. We knew the end was near, of course, but she’d had other crises, other storms she’d weathered.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, as I go through a million little things I never imagined having to deal with—arranging for the home hospice care people to come and pick up the hospital bed, resetting her iCloud passwords, all the various ways we close the threads of a life. (The truck is titled in my mom’s name but my dad isn’t on the title, something my sister is dealing with.)

You never know.

Someday, there will be a last time you see the moon through the trees. Someday, there will be a last time you hug the people close to you. Someday, there will be a last time you hear a bird sing, a last time you have your favorite dessert, a last time you feel the sun on your face.

You might not know when that is. It might have already happened.

You are an anomaly. Yes, you. The odds of your existence are incomprehensibly small. You trace your lineage directly across the billions of years to a primitive, single-celled organism, and any tiny disruption of that slender thread would erase your existence. Had your parents gone to the movies that night, you would not be here.

You have these brief moments under the sun, and that is a gift beyond price—beyond imagining. Somehow, you beat odds so great your brain literally cannot comprehend them, and of the trillions of potential beings that might exist, here you are.

These few moments are all you will ever have. Cherish them, because there will be a last time for everything.

Loving Life Amidst Loss

[Note: this essay started out as an answer on Quora]

Right now, as I type this, I’m in Florida helping care for my mom. My dad and I have been doing 12-hour shifts with her, because she needs round-the-clock care. Between that and all the thousand things around the house that need tending to that my dad isn’t able to, I haven’t been sleeping much.

Last night at about 5am my mom started having trouble breathing, so I called 911. We just heard from the hospital 10 minutes ago. The cancer has spread to her lungs and brain. She really wanted to make it to her birthday in 6 days. The doctors don’t think she’ll make it.

So I’m not maybe the best person to talk about loving life right now.

And yet…

A few days ago, my wife and I spent a couple of hours at the Festival of Lights in Cape Coral. They had hot cocoa and a campfire with marshmallows.

When I stumbled out of bed this morning (well, technically this afternoon), the first thing that happened was my mom’s cat sat at my feet, meowed at me, and headbutted me to say hi.

Right at this very moment, I’m looking out the window onto my parents’ patio, where three squirrels are chasing each other across the screen roof, and it’s delightful.

I was born just barely early enough to see humanity walk on the moon—-some of my earliest childhood memories are sitting in front of a B&W TV watching the Apollo launches. Odds are good I will see humanity walk on Mars. Isn’t that amazing?

I am surrounded by love. I’m spending Christmas with my Talespinner. My life is filled with creativity and joy—I write books with some of my lovers, my wife and I created the Borg Queen xenomorph parasite cosplay from an idea she had three years ago, I’m teaching myself CNC machining and laser engraving.

I live in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in human history. We can fly through the air. Every day, we learn more about the universe.

This photo:

was taken by a probe that landed on a comet. We have the capacity to launch a probe that can travel for years and then arrive precisely on a small rock traveling at 84,000 miles per hour, which is about like a person in Boston shooting a rifle and hitting a golf ball in midair in Moscow. (Bizarre how many people think science is “just another belief system,” eh?)

And, I mean, I get it. The world isn’t all roses. Right now, far too many people in my country are too uneducated in history to recognize when they’re being lied to by yet another populist grifter selling them the same old tired lie that all their failures are the fault of somebody else.

We have a political party that takes gleeful, sadistic delight in mendacious cruelty, and a voting populace that sincerely believes it’s okay to vote for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party because surely the leopards won’t eat their faces—only the faces of the Mexicans and the gays and the trans people, right?

There is pettiness, and cruelty, and meanspiritedness. There are people who make voting choices because they want to hurt other Americans just to own the libs.

But viewed on a large enough scale, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We may be in the “one step back” part of the “two steps forward, one step back” cycle, yet this too shall pass.

I want to be here to see what happens next.

Virtue or virtue signaling: how do you tell?

[Note: This entry originally started out as an answer on Quora. If you want to keep up with my writings, I’m most active over there these days.]

Most people want to think of themselves as basically “good people.” Many people want to appear to be good people, particularly to their friends and social group. The cynic in me believes that few people are all that concerned with being good people, because being a good person is hard work, requiring careful analysis of complex, nuanced situations, dealing with ambiguity, and occasionally being forced to confront uncomfortable facts.

Enter Virtue Signaling, a way to express to your tribe that you uphold the tribal values without, you know, doing that hard, uncomfortable work! Gain all the advantages of conforming to the norms of your social group without any of that messy ethical stuff!

In the US, the political right loves to accuse the political left of virtue signaling, but this is something that knows no political divide. The rural conservative who throws away his Bud Lite because Budweiser gave beer to a transgender activist, or smashes his Dixie Chicks CD, is engaging in virtue signaling just as much as the liberal who posts “boycott Avatar 2!” on his Twitter feed without ever intending to watch the movie in the first place.

Emory & Henry College defines virtue signaling this way:

The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments to demonstrate one’s good character or moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. Modern examples of Virtue Signaling are posting opinions that you do not share on social media in order to gain popularity and reputation.

And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I admit I’ve done this. I’ve offered opinions on people and situations about which I was uninformed, because I wanted to be the good guy but didn’t want to take the time to better inform myself. (In fact, the times I’ve done this, I would’ve strenuously denied that was what I was doing, because of course I knew what I was talking about, even though I didn’t know the situation or talk to the people involved…I let my own narratives about How The World Works fill in the blanks for me. We human beings understand the world through stories; the narratives we accept, often without realizing it, inform the way we perceive the world.)

So, with that in mind, what separates genuine virtue from virtue signaling? How can you tell?

I would like to propose a set of guidelines that, I believe, makes separating the two rather easy:

Virtue signaling is cheap and costs nothing. You’re literally sending signals to improve your standing with your in-group; it will not cost you socially with your in-group by definition. It always goes with your in-group, never against it.

Virtue may cost you something—socially, politically, or financially. It sometimes may not match the expectations of the people around you. Holding to virtue might occasionally put you at odds with your in-group.

Virtue signaling has no nuance, no shades of gray. It boils everything down to bumper stickers: Jesus Is Lord. Make America Great Again. Eat The Rich. Kindness Is Everything. Because its purpose is to communicate that you belong with your in-group, it’s made up of simple slogans that champion the in-group’s values in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

Virtue allows for nuance. Virtue requires looking at complex situations and making informed choices, rather than relying on bumper-sticker deepitudes. Virtue isn’t about clearly-defined good guys and bad guys; it requires constant engagement.

Virtue signaling is about the person doing it. It’s a way to say “Look at me! Look at me! I share your values! Look at me!” It centers the person engaging in it: “everyone, see what a good person I am because I support the values of my in-group.”

Virtue is about the thing. It doesn’t grab the spotlight or seek attention. While a virtue signaler is on YouTube talking about how great they are for shining a light on the fact that homelessness is bad (don’t forget to click Subscribe! And sign up for my Patreon!), virtue is out there with a hammer building houses for Habitat for Humanity.

There’s actually a Bible passage about this: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Virtue signaling is out there praying loudly in the middle of the street; virtue takes place off stage, with sleeves rolled up, doing the work to find the facts and minimize harm in a world where there’s not always a lot of adulation in it and sometimes things aren’t as simple as they seem.

Virtue signaling is about identifying who’s one of Us and who’s one of Them. We are good, noble, just, patriotic. They are evil, corrupt, traitorous dogs.

Virtue is about living, inasmuch as is possible, a life of kindness and compassion, rooted in truth, empathy, and generosity.

Virtue signaling is about keeping safe by rigidly enforcing and policing the boundaries between Us and Them through purity and moral conformity. It turns on itself. It eats its own. It seeks out those on our side who are insufficiently pure, insufficiently dedicated to our ideals. It frequently spends as much time savaging those on Our side as attacking those on Their side.

Virtue is about living in an imperfect world where people are not always 100% pure 100% of the time. It’s about genuine harm reduction, not moral purity. Harm reduction is, as my crush and co-author Eunice once said, “ethics trying to live in the real world.” Where virtue signaling is proving one’s moral purity in a vicious game of Last Man Standing, virtue is about making the world just a little bit kinder, a little bit better, not just for those who pass the moral purity litmus test, but for everyone.

Virtue signaling tells you who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Virtue is understanding that nobody is purely one thing or the other, so the best approach is to treat others the way you would have them treat you—ir, if you’re genuinely virtuous, to do unto others 20% better than they do unto you, to correct for subjective error.

In other words, the key takeaway I’d like to propose is this:

Virtue signaling is about bettering your own station by persuading the people in your social group of your moral purity. Virtue is about bettering the world for everyone.

Thoughts on bullying and pain

[Note: This entry is based on two of my answers on Quora. If you want to keep up with my writing, that’s the best place to do it these days.]

So I’ve been spending some time lately thinking about the psychology of bullying, and why bullies seem unhappy when you live a good life once you’ve escaped their reach.

And I think I’m at least a bit closer to understanding.

Bullying, like many other forms of abuse, is ultimately about power and control. People who feel out of control in their lives—perhaps due to problems in their family of origin, perhaps because they don’t have a strongly developed sense of boundaries or sense of self, whatever—often see controlling other people as the only way to feel safe or to reclaim a personal sense of power.

I mean, this isn’t like, an incisive and cunning insight or anything. We’ve known this since the dawn of time. Abuse is about power and control—that’s pretty much both axiomatic and definitional whenever you talk about abuse. Basically any book on abuse or bullying will tell you that.

Hurt people hurt people.

Again, not an incisive and cunning insight. Eunice and I found this graffiti whilst doing some urban spelunking in a ruined mansion when we were in New Orleans together:

Do hurt people hurt people? Is that why bullies bully?

Yes, as far as it goes. That is, do I believe “hurt people hurt people” is true? Yes. Do I believe it’s the whole truth? No, I don’t.

On a surface level, yes, it’s obviously true. You see it often when people break up—they’ll lash out at each other. Anger is part of grief, and anger frequently causes people to do hurtful things.

But I also think the real harm is more often done not by people who are hurt, but by people who are scared.

Image: Alexandra Gorn

Fear is the mind (and relationship) killer

All the books on abuse and bullying, all the research, all the anecdotes, point in the same direction: the core of abuse is power. Whenever you see two people pointing fingers at each other and calling each other abusers, look to the arrow of control. One of them will be exerting, or attempting to exert, power and control over the other. That’s the abuser, always.

But people who exert power over others, in intimate partner relationships, rarely do so because they wake up and say “Hey, you know what? I enjoy being bossy. I think I’ll control my partner today!” (I mean yes, that can happen, but it’s not the norm.)

Most people driven to control in intimate relationships do so, I believe, because they’re acting out of fear. The control is a means to an end, not the end itself. They’re afraid of losing the relationship, or of being abandoned, or whatever, and exerting control becomes a bulwark against the fear, the only way they feel safe. “If I control who my partner socializes with, I can make sure nobody steals my partner.” “If I control where my partner goes, I can calm my fear that my partner is sneaking around behind my back.” Whatever.

The thing about fear is it drives us to extremes,. Often, like insecurity, it drives us to do the exact things that will cause what we fear to come true.

Control is rooted in fear, and a controlling person often lashes out if their fear comes true. Anyone who’s ever worked with intimate partner abuse will tell you the single most dangerous moment for an abuse victim is when they leave the abuser. A person who has lost control of their partner is extremely dangerous, and will often say or do anything to try to re-assert that control.

Fearful people are often people who were hurt in the past, especially as children. Control becomes a dysfunctional, maladaptive way to try to prevent being hurt or abandoned again.

So yes, hurt people hurt people on a surface level—anger is part of grief, and angry people lash out. But the real harm is most often done not out of hurt, but out of fear, and specifically out of fear that becomes need to control.

So. If abuse is about power and control, and abusers often exert power and control out of fear, why then do bullies hate that you live your best life later on?

Because it shows that you have escaped control. You are thriving, your life is wonderful, you are surrounded by joy and love…

…without them.

They have failed to alter the trajectory of your life. They have failed to trap you in the muck with them. You’re accomplishing things, without them. You’re building joy, without them. They can no longer reach you. You are a living testament to their lack of control.

Abuse is about power and control. Your escape from the bully’s control is a personal affront that highlights whatever damage drives the bully to bully in the first place. It affirms the bully’s fear: I have been abaondoned. I am not loved. That’s intolerable.

Does silence mean consent?

[Note: This post started out as an answer on Quora]

Does silence mean consent? Sexually? No. Clearly not.

If you’re talking about Thomas More’s philosophy of qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent seems to consent), it’s…complicated.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately, and even had a long discussion about it with my co-author Eunice a few weeks back. We fall on opposite sides of the issue, or perhaps on subtly different sides of one aspect of the issue.

Buckle up, bruh, this might get long.

When people say “silence equals consent,” they’re uuuuusually not talking about sex. When More said “qui tacet consentire videtur,” he was responding to a legal question about why he didn’t recognize the king’s dominion over the Church. His answer basically meant “I didn’t object to it, therefore I recognize it.”

In law and international relations, qui tacet consentire videtur means something more like “silence means assent.” That is, if you don’t object to a statement or decision or policy or treaty or something, that is functionally the same as if you had voted “yes” to it.

Okay. So. Here’s the thing:

The same idea often seems to apply in social settings, especially in subcommunities. You’ll see this play out when, for example, people say “if you’re conservative but you don’t speak out against the fascists in your party, you’re basically saying you’re one of them.” Or “if you’re Muslim but don’t speak out against the violent extremists among you, you’re basically saying you agree with them.” (Whichever way you personally may fall on the political spectrum, dear reader, it always feels less comfortable when it’s turned around, doesn’t it?)

Now, I’ve seen this happen in a subcommunity that I used to belong to. I get how it works.

The thing Eunice points out, and I agree with, is qui tacet consentire videtur only applies if it’s safe to speak dissent. If you risk being beheaded for publicly saying that the king does not rightfully have dominion over the church, then keeping your mouth shut is not automatically assent.

The place we differ is whether or not remaining silent in the face of immorality is a morally defensible act.

Now I get it, I really do. If you live under the Taliban’s rule and you’re Muslim, you maybe might want to think twice about raising your voice in objection to extremism, or you and your family are at very real risk.

Where I think things get muddier is when you’re not at risk of having your head separated from your shoulders, but rather you don’t speak your dissent because you’re worried it will cost you social standing. Or friends. Or your position in your community. You know, something that’s not your life or your freedom.

Where Eunice and I differ is she’s way more patient than I am with people who don’t speak out about things they sincerely believe are wrong when doing so may cost something.

She believes, if I may take the liberty of stating her position as I understand it, that we all have the right to set for ourselves our own personal level of acceptable risk, and what we are willing to put on the line for our values. It is not necessarily wrong to decide the consequences for speaking dissent are more than we are willing to pay.

I’m a lot more hardline about it. I believe that, to quote Jon Stewart:

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies.

If you make your values a part of your identity, but fail to express them whenever they might cost you something, then yes, your silence, functionally, does mean assent.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The problem is, evil can make it expensive enough that nobody wants to be the first one to do something.

It’s like a criminal holding 30 hostages with a six-shot revolver. If everyone stood up, they’d win. But the first one to stand up is getting shot, so nobody wants to be the first one to stand up, so everyone meekly complies with the criminal and allows him to tie them up, so now he can kill all 30 at his leisure.

There’s actually a scene in a Marvel movie, of all things, that nicely illustrates the dilemma of qui tacet consentire videtur:

At what cost our dissent? Most of us would like to look in the mirror and tell ourselves we are like this man. Almost nobody actually is. I’ll bet folding money that most people will keep silent in the face of things they are think are wrong even if the cost of speaking up is quite small.


When I posted this on Quora, a friend remarked that in his opinion, Eunice’s position shows greater empathy than mine; that is, Eunice is less hard-line than I am because she’s more sensitive to the plight of the person placed in the position of not being able to speak up without facing the community’s retaliation.

I chewed on that idea for weeks. I had a sense that there was something missing from that idea, but it took me a while to put my finger on what it was.

In situations where, for example, someone is in the closet as a member of some sexual or ethnic morality for fear of the community’s reaction if he comes out, I agree. That’s absolutely a reasonable choice, and deserves respect and compassion. In fact, I’ve chosen to live openly, as I’ve said in my memoir and also at events back as far as the 90s, in part because I can. I’ve never had a job that would be at risk because someone finds out I’m polyamorous, or family that would disown me.

In that sense, I’m privileged, and I know it, and it’s because I’m privileged I want to do whatever I can to make it easier for the next person to be open.

Image: Adrian Swancar

What I’m talking about here is slightly different from being in the closet, though. This answer is more about being silent in the face of things you know to be wrong—not silence in the sense of “I am silent about my own sexual orientation because I am worried people will harm me,” but in the sense of “I see people like me harming those who come out of the closet, and I’m silent about that because I don’t want those people to attack me too.” I do think those are two different situations, and in the latter, being silent to the bigotry of others does serve as assent to their bigotry.

If I as a straight person don’t stand up to homophobia, am I complicit in it? If I as a man don’t stand up to misogyny, am I complicit in it? I personally think the answer is yes.

The part about empathy is what triggered that realization, because it’s precisely empathy that makes me draw that bright line. I think that it’s easy to have empathy for the straight person who doesn’t stand up to the homophobe, because most of us identify with that person and it’s easiest to have empathy for those who are like us.

But the person who most needs empathy isn’t the straight person too scared to speak up, but the gay person being targeted in the first place.

Yes, it’s important to have empathy for the straight person who’s worried about being targeted by the bigots, because yes, bigots can and do come after those on the “side” of the disfavored group—look at, for example, American white nationalists who target Black people but also target “race traitors” they perceive as siding with Black people against their own race.

But in that particular case, who do we empathize with more? Who drives our compassion: the white person who is afraid of being branded a “race traitor” and harassed by the white nationalists, or the Black person at the receiving end of their hate?

I see that bright line not because I don’t empathize with the white guy who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself from the bigot, but because I do empathize with the person who has to live with that bigotry when nobody is willing to speak up.